Friday, 20 September 2013

Golden Duke

BBC News today commemorates the fiftieth anniversary of Duke Ellington's visit to Afghanistan and an engagement in Kabul as part of his 1963 State Department tour.

Monica Whitlock of the BBC World Service writes:

Fifty years ago this week, Duke Ellington and his band played in a concert he later called one of the most memorable of his life. The performance was in Kabul, in Afghanistan, and even though Ellington was at the height of his fame, almost all traces of it have been lost.
For the organiser, Faiz Khairzada, and hundreds of Afghans in the audience, the concert was a high point of the early 1960s. "It was very exciting for me to have him in Kabul," says Khairzada, then head of Afghanistan's cultural affairs organisation.
It was he who met Ellington at the airport and drove him on a golden afternoon across Kabul, then a small city, to the stage he'd built at the Ghazi stadium. Khairzada was a jazz fan and they chatted on the way about Louis Armstrong and about plans to make home-grown Afghan films. "You make the movie, kid - and I'll do the music for it," Ellington offered, and in the Kabul of 1963, all that seemed possible.
Tickets were free and around 5,000 people made their way to the stadium to hear what to them was the new and strange sound of jazz. Ellington opened with Caravan, followed by Don't Get Around Much Anymore. Khairzada remembers that between numbers Ellington would come to the edge of the stage and chat to the audience.
"Of course the people didn't understand. This kind of music - blues and jazz - was very little known," he says. "But they loved the style. When the trumpets and saxophones came out and did their solos, people were awed - not so much by the sound, but the performance."
Ellington was puzzled when, halfway through the concert, the audience appeared to leave. But Khairzada explained that it was the hour of prayer, and the seats soon filled up again. King Zahir and the royal family came over to shake hands with the band after the concert.
Ellington remembered "riding round all night long" after the concert, listening to Afghan music in cafes. "They have their own thing going on there, and it's good," he told BBC chat show host Michael Parkinson in 1973.
The Kabul concert was part of a longer tour sponsored by the US State Department - jazz diplomacy playing out against the backdrop of the Cold War.
As early as 1953 (sic, that should read 1958) the American jazz giant Dave Brubeck had himself played Kabul. His visit, he said, had inspired his hit Nomad on the album Impressions of Eurasia. Ellington's tour took in Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Iran and Lebanon, where, according to Ellington, "those cats were swinging". The band had reached Turkey on 22 November 1963 when the shocking news came that President John F Kennedy had been assassinated.

The BBC website gives further background information to the tour (The tour began on 6 September 1963, when Ellington and his orchestra flew from New York to Damascus, SyriaOver the next two-and-a-half months they played in Jordan, Lebanon, Afghanistan, India, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Iran, Iraq and Turkey) and links to Ehsan Khoshbakht's Take the 'A' Train. Congratulations to Ehsan for the name check and this particular post may be read here.

There is a marvelous clip of Ellington on the Parkinson show discussing his visit to Kabul in the BBC article. The whole piece may be read here.

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